Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch
Elaine Stritch was the Broadway belter with a foghorn in both musicals and straight drama—from the caustic Joanne in Sondheim’s Company to the tragic Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But her biggest triumph in her six-decade career was playing herself in her one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty. She snagged a whole new generation of TV fans as Alec Baldwin’s snarky mother on 30 Rock. After years of battling diabetes and alcoholism, Stritch died in 2014 age 89, a theatrical legend to the end.
Alexandra Jacobs’ Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch is a highly entertaining, if gossipy, biography of the star and her times. And her singular fearlessness in navigating the fickle and brutal world of commercial theater in the US. How she surmounted personal insecurities, addiction, and relationships that drove “Stritchy” as Noel Coward nicknamed her, to enduring stardom.
Stritch grew in a Catholic family in Detroit, and her close, frequently rocky relationships with her parents and two sisters shadowed her whole life. Her independent spirit and desire to go on the stage started at a very young age.
With America in the first years of WWII, Stritch landed in New York as an 18 year old under the protective eyes of the nuns in a respectable boarding house on Fifth Ave. But Stritch was instantly swept up in the what would later be viewed as the most defining era of the American Theater. She was exposed to the pioneering theatrical training of Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, not to mention a new breed of distinctly American actors.
Stitch’s first big hit was in William Inge’s Bus Stop as the wise-cracking owner of a diner in the Midwest. Stritch was consistently passed over for lead roles. But Noel Coward in Sail Away rewrote his own show so she would be the star. She was Ethel Merman’s understudy in Call Me Madam and simultaneously stole the show with her one big number, “Zip” in Pal Joey.
In the early ’60s, Stritch was Uta Hagan’s stand-in as Martha in Edward Albee’s Virginia Woolf on Broadway. In 1970, she created the role of Joanne, in the Broadway and London casts of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, again stopping the show with “Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunch,” but she had to fight to get star billing.
She repeatedly fell in love with other actors, and even dated Marlon Brando when he was studying with Stella Adler and hanging out at the Actor’s Studio. Stritch had a serious affair with Ben Gazzara, but she ended it after the couple argued during which he struck her. Both were in Italy making films, when rumors started swirling that she was involved with closeted gay film star Rock Hudson, while they were filming A Farewell to Arms.
Stritch met the love of her life, American actor John Bay, when they were both cast in the London production of Tennessee Williams’ Small Craft Warnings. And they were a most happy couple until his sudden death from heart disease a decade later.
But as Elaine got older, the theater work was drying up. Jacobs reports Dorothy Loudon as saying that she and Stritch were the go-to stars for Broadway benefit performances for a number of fundraisers and social causes, but “We weren’t getting [theater] work.”
In the ’90s, Stritch won an Emmy for her work on Law & Order; in fact TV was giving her a third act in her career. Late in her life, because of several health problems and her demanding lifestyle, Stritch needed a number of people in her court to keep her together for work and personally. Stritch’s public image as being completely alcohol free for 28 years was an on and off again truth, as Jacobs reports based on interviews by several of her friends.
Elaine told all of the tales, the good, the bad and the boozy, embroidering much, in Elaine Stritch at Liberty, directed by George Wolfe at the Public Theater. She used chunks of that material for her hugely successful cabaret act at the famed Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan, where she was also a resident for a dozen years.
Most engaging is Jacobs’ portrait of Stritch as the sensitive theater artist she actually was with a warts and all portrait of the inimitable Stritchy.